Identity, Value, and Trudging Home

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One of the most readily affirmed truths in Christianity is that we are children of God and all our value comes from that identity.  By that, I mean we recognize that God’s love and adoption of us as his children imparts our value to us.  Not our abilities, not our possessions, not our fame or fortune or friendships or degrees or social standing or accomplishments make us any more valuable in God’s estimation than we were to begin with, simply because he created us and adores us.


pronouns

I’m always wrestling with which pronoun to use, because “I,” “you” and “we” convey
monumentally different things, and I don’t always feel confident or qualified to move beyond first-person singular.  So I will start with the one about which I am certain.


 

I say these words easily but they are not yet true of me:  My only value comes from being a child of God.  Actually, they are true, I believe by faith.  But I don’t believe them.

Huh?  Yeah, I said that.  I believe in the truth of this statement, but I do not believe this about myself on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.

Can I believe a statement is true if I don’t live by its truth?  Of course.  I believe that sin hurts us and if I avoided sin, I would spare myself oodles of suffering and misery.  Yep, I believe every word of that.  I don’t stop sinning, mind you.  But intellectually?  I’m all in.

And yet, and yet, we have to ask what we mean (oops, slipped into first-person plural) by “believe.” Does it mean, “I affirm this truth,” “I assent to this fact,” or does it mean, “I live by this knowledge and order my life accordingly?”

I believe that eating healthily all the time is the best thing for my body.  I don’t always eat healthily, but generally I try.  And sometimes I just gorge.  Mostly on holidays or special occasions when I’m calling it a feast day and just taking it off from eating more wisely and selectively.  Or when I’m depressed and think that eating junk food will cheer me up, which never works in the long-term but does make me feel a little better in the instant gratification time-frame.

Back to identity.  My conflict feels different to me than sinning or eating badly, because with those I know I’m wandering away from reason, but in the moment I’ve just decided a)I don’t care, b)the consequences are worth it, or c)I’ll swim in denial for a bit.

When I say, “Being God’s child alone gives me value,” I am speaking a truth that my head buys and my heart simply doesn’t.  So I know it’s true, but I don’t believe the truth I know.  In case you are not conflicted in this manner, I can recommend some wonderful higher mathematics sites that you might really enjoy.  But Paul who wrote Romans was.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

I had a leader of a mission trip I was on tell me that this is a passage for non-Christians and does not apply to Christians.  It may not have applied to him, but it still describes me and I’ve been a Christian for coming on 30 years now.

I would like to know and believe the truth about myself.  Heck, I would like to know, believe and live the truth about myself.  How cool would that be?  When I imagine what “God is faithful to complete the work he started” means, I picture this.  Consistency, across the board.  But today, I’m still all over the map, like the start of a Risk game when you’ve got one or two armies on each country spread out hither and yon with no pattern other than the random draw of cards.*

Today I received four compliments, seven insults, a few hugs, a nasty look, and an email thatstocksrisingandfalling might have been joking or else was a dagger camouflaged as humor.**  Does my value change like a volatile stock that bounces up and down as its shares are bought and sold?  Nope, it does not. I know that.  But those things impact me because some part of me believes that that’s exactly what happens.  Days where I can do no wrong, everyone sends sunshine my way, and my little goals in life seem to be getting accomplished, I don’t just feel happy–I feel more valuable.  That’s a confession.  I shouldn’t.  I know better.

• The things people say are largely, if not entirely, about them, not me.  Every compliment must be taken with a grain of salt and every insult should probably be taken with a salt lick.

• There are SO MANY variables going on with every interaction I have:  People are having skubula days, they are in crises I know nothing about, parenting is not working out for them today, they (like me) suffer from insomnia, they’re feeling lousy, etc, etc, etcetera.

• I can’t be a reliable witness to how others intend their words.  Oh, I can guess and speculate–and do, all the time.  But I’m no expert witness.  No case should be decided based on my evaluation of whether that tone you just spoke to me in was light-hearted, mocking, indifferent or dismissive.  I don’t know your intentions.  I’m doing my best to decipher them, but even after I guess I still don’t know whether I’m right.

That’s a tiny list of reasons I shouldn’t let my value rise and fall on my interactions with others.  I know all this stuff.  But if you, whom I love, or maybe like a whole lot, speak sharply to me or maybe don’t trouble to speak to me, I feel bad.  It might be legitimate for me to feel concern for you, or be troubled about the state of our friendship (or whatever we have), or even question whether I did or said something wrong.  But I feel bad about me.

Truthfully, my negative response ranges based on how important the speaker or ignorer is in my life.  And this is exactly why I should root my value in God’s view and only God’s view.

• God alone has the objective view.

• God isn’t having a bad day, pissed that his car won’t start, etc. x 3.

• What God thinks of me, in the end, matters the most…by a wide margin.

In the same sense that either God exists or doesn’t, I am either valuable to God or I’m not.  According to the Bible, God does and I am.  Both unchanging.

You may say, “Come on, Mike, those negative things might hit your emotions, but they aren’t really impacting how you see your value.  Right?”  Thus did I choose to write this from my very own first-person singular perspective.  You may love advanced equation websites and you may never have felt the Romans passage I quoted above applies to you.  If that’s genuine, awesome.  If that’s your version of denial…stay with me.  We’ll get there.

I’ve become convinced that these things hit my emotions so hard precisely because I still have them connected with my value as a person, or as a Christian, or whichever part of my identity gets bruised or coddled.  Going up is just as dangerous as going down because a)what goes up must come down (i.e. if I’m invested in praise I’m also invested in criticism) and b)feeling too good about myself apart from God’s value he has imputed to me runs me smack into pride.  Anything referred to as “the root of all other sins” is just as well avoided.


 

What now?  If you are going to jump into this boat with me acknowledge that you’ve been in this boat with me all along, I’ll shift to what we might do.

My value comes from God’s love, straight up, no chaser.  God loves me whether I spend tomorrow in the fetal position, accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God, or manage some middle ground betwixt.  God loves me whether I’m wallowing in my sin or loving him with all my heart and my neighbor as myself (he has a strong preference between those, largely for my sake, but his love doesn’t waver).  If God’s love for me stays consistent regardless of my own behaviors, it’s sure and certain not to change with others’ treatment of me, nor with any of the other things that tend to swing me with their lassos.

We need to internalize this truth.  We need to integrate it into our thought patterns and let it become the measure by which we evaluate every interaction.  I know, that might sound exhausting and a little unrealistic.  Am I really going to stop after every conversation and mentally compare it with the truth about God’s love for me?  But I’m pretty sure this is what some other folks already have built in.  That’s how it appears to function in my wife.

To get this truth internalized, we need to soak in it.***  Let it saturate us.  Make it the air we breathe and the chocolate food we eat.  Let it become the water we swim in.  Meditate, memorize, reread over and over every single day, passages that convey God’s love for you.  Pick your favorites.  I don’t care if that’s cherry picking.  If you struggle with the same kind of negative thoughts I do, you are already very clear on passages about judgment, sin, and failing.  God’s grace is greater.  Jesus died for us when we were enemies.  Nothing separates us from the love of God.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The next time you feel yourself plummeting due to someone’s words or actions, step back and hold up what they’ve said or done/your reaction to what they’ve said or done**** against the words that you’ve been ingesting.  Yes, they may even have spoken something true about what you’ve done wrong or need to repent of or do differently, but that doesn’t change who you are.  It doesn’t change how God sees you.

If you can, ask someone close to you to speak these truths to you when you can’t manage it for yourself.  This can be uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing.  It’s tough to let other people see how screwed up we feel.  But the right people can help us to believe what we struggle to accept about ourselves.

Pray.  God can change hearts, God can change minds, God can change our screwed-up wiring.  There’s a reason for each of us why we started believing untruths about ourselves.  Something happened in us that caused us to attach our value to other people’s responses or our own success or failure or whatever thing(s) we’ve hooked on to apart from God.  God can get into that sealed-off chamber in us and transform and redeem what’s in there.

I’m not saying it will happen like magic–“Presto!”–nor that it will be painless.  The truth will set us free, but first it will kick our butts.  Healing often hurts.   That’s the paradox, but it’s one we see in our physical bodies and everywhere in the world around us.  What I’m describing may require intensive prayer, or counseling, or a support group, or some other form of deeper work.  Sorry that sounds rough.  We agreed we are in the boat and leaving denial behind.*****

I am God’s beloved child.  

You are God’s beloved child.  

There are a whole bunch of other things we think we are, we’re told we are, and we’ve believed we are.  They’ve got to be dragged out into the sunshine.  The father who loves us gets the final say.  Do you think the prodigal son, while trudging home, believed the truth about himself?

rembrandt_prodigal

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

We’re trudging home.

I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

 

Footnotes:

*Sometimes we played random draw for countries and sometimes we took turns choosing them.  The latter better look a little more like strategic planning.  Maybe winning at Risk is the image of having God’s work in me completed, in which case the other colors are truly my enemies…not too bad of an analogy.  I think I’ll leave it there before it collapses with rolling the dice.

**I’m making these numbers up so that my problem-solving friends don’t try to figure out where they figure in.

***Some authors I highly recommend to help with this:  Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Joyce Meyer, Timothy Keller, Rob Bell.

****Because remember, we’re only interpreting their intentions through our own lenses.

*****I disavow any pun here.  If you thought it, it’s yours.

Who Speaks for Us

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embarrassed

Red Cups.

Complete absurdity.  Nothing more need be said.

Yet so much is being said.  Somebody started this inane discussion, a whole bunch of other people joined in, and now the memes are flying, the progressives are denying, the “victims” are crying…and I’m dying.  At least I feel like I am, or kind of would like to, because this is so bloody humiliating.

So let me start here:  I never said that Christmas is under attack.  I’ve never questioned your right to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  I’m okay with Starbucks serving their coffee in whatever cups they choose.  I have no say in their business and want no say in their business.  I would certainly number myself among those who believe that $5 could go toward feeding a starving child or protecting a battered mom, and I put myself squarely in the camp of those who believe we should invest our money in caring for those who were not born into the richest 6% on the planet because of what Jesus says.

I am so gut-wrenchingly weary of seeing these arguments pop up.  I truly hate them.  I don’t hate the people who start them, but that is an act of will and the work of God’s Spirit.

I believe knowing God’s love transforms us.  I’ve seen wrecked, wretched lives become something beautiful because Jesus redeems what we’ve trashed, including–maybe especially–ourselves.  As Bono sings about Grace, she “travels outside of karma.”   We don’t just get what we deserve or what we have coming to us.  Thank God.

If we could be known as the people whose wrecked lives were salvaged, I would be thrilled.  If we followed Pope Francis’s example and became known for our concern and action on behalf of the poor, I would be ecstatic.  Heck, if we could just be known as the folks who are kind to our neighbors, go out of our way to help people when they move and always show up in emergencies, I would say the Lord’s Prayer is getting answered (the “thy will be done” part).

But “we” keep making an ass of our collective selves.  We keep rallying behind causes that, to my way of thinking, have less than nothing to do with what Jesus calls us to (“Love one another as I have loved you”, “Love God,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a reasonable 15-word summary).  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how we’re thinking that this will encourage people to experience God’s delight in them or to believe that there is hope beyond the mess that they’ve made of their lives.

“I’m trapped in this gambling addiction, I spent our rent money–again–after my wife gave me the ultimatum if I don’t change this time she’ll divorce me and fight me to the death for custody of our children.  Oh, wait, Christians are upset about how a multinational is decorating their disposable paper cups and how Target markets its toys–I see the Light!”mystery-person-full

So who speaks for us?  Who gets to set the popular understanding for what we believe, how we live, what we want people to know about us?   We’re not really a “keep it to ourselves” community, since Jesus said not to hide our light under a laundry hamper.  I know, there are many folks who dislike that specific characteristic, that we feel so compelled to talk about what we believe and make sure others know, in case they want to join in.  But I’m convinced that if what we couldn’t keep to ourselves was our desire to care for abandoned babies and poor, lonely women dying in nursing homes, ordinary folks wouldn’t feel quite so ticked off.  And if they did, I could reasonably let myself say (to myself), “That might be their problem.  They may even feel a little nipped of conscience.”  If people freaked out over our relentless action on behalf of kids who drink polluted water and breathe noxious fumes, I could conclude that those people, not we, have the problem.

You know what?  There are people who give themselves tirelessly to helping kids drink clean water.  I’ve met them.  I know people, as friends, who fight against child trafficking in the world, from here in Nicaragua to Thailand to in the U.S. where we’re tempted to cover our eyes and pretend it’s not our problem.  I have beloved friends who have spent their adult lives in South Central Los Angeles, in what many would call “the hood” or “Compton” or “the ghetto.”  They fight for better education for the kids there, they’ve helped shut down a liquor store/brothel/drug den, they’ve run a tutoring center for the past 20 years.

I would nominate these folks as the ones who should speak for Christians.  I know they would kick me in the shins for saying this, because they don’t want the weight of such responsibility, but honestly, they’ve earned it.  They are loving, grace-spreading people who attract others and rally the neighbors to their cause–of making the neighborhood a safer place for everyone.  Scandalous, huh?  There are, indeed, those who dislike my friends and oppose their work…because these campaigns threaten profits to slumlords and worse.  Hmm.  That might be their problem.

You know and I know that media, plural, also run for-profit businesses based on viewers, advertisers, airtime, views, clicks, and again advertisers.  Though some newspapers, news programs and web sites might hope to help educate and inform the public and do that fifth estate thing, the overwhelming majority, in terms of dollars and audience, pursue their bottom line through whatever attracts attention.  Sex always sells.  People love scandals.  Folks love to boo the bad guys or watch the mighty stumble and face-plant in mud.  Most desire to see idiots make asses of themselves.  They want a common enemy.  These are all base motives, and every large media outlet caters to all of these, in their own way.

Enough generalizations.  Someone is reporting this stupid story.  Someone can’t resist–won’t miss out on the profits generated by the viewership from–everything the Westboro Baptist Church does.  Do those reporting desire to make Christianity look stupid?  Perhaps.  I suspect for some that motive is present in the mix, especially if it can go hand-in-hand with getting higher ratings/ making more money for their business.

So yes, we can’t have this discussion without acknowledging that how Christianity is reported in the news and by whom figures large in answering who appears to speak for us.

But I expect profit-seeking businesses to pursue profitable strategies.  I may dislike their approach and question their moral character; I am not surprised that they do what they do.

On the other hand, I am still surprised and appalled when people who read from the same main book I read and talk to the same Divine Being I’m praying to conclude we should scream and abuse and persecute and hoard, in the name of Jesus.  If reporters are twisting our words, shame on them.  If we speak hatred and fear-mongering, more than shame on us.  We are making Jesus out to be the un-grace in the world.  That just sucks.

When the religious leaders of Jesus’ day twisted the message and turned people away from the God Jesus depicted in Luke chapter fifteen–the one who ran down the road to hold his pig feces-reeking son and welcome him back without rebuke for self-destructive choices–Jesus called them out in the most aggressive manner.  He called them hypocrites, like 19 times.  He called them “children of hell.” He challenged them to change by pointing to who God really was and pulling back the curtain on the sham they were making of loving God and neighbor.

I know we’re going to have some Christians who pull hypocritical stunts.  I lived through the Bakers and Swaggart fiasco.  I don’t think I’m holier than them, but I don’t want them speaking for Jesus or representing his followers to the public, either.  They claimed those positions and that went badly.

I don’t want the role, either, a lot of the time.  I know my own hypocrisy and inconsistencies…or at least a bunch of them.  I seem to discover new ones every other day.

But the truth is, to a small degree i do have this role.  I preach.  I mentor teens and young adults.  I teach the Bible.  I coach.  I live this faith in public.  I write about who I think God is and how he feels about you and me.

It’s a shared responsibility.  Everyone who wakes up in the morning and tells people, “Yeah, I’m a Jesus follower,” contributes to the message.

If that’s true, what do we want to say?  What are the most important points we’d like to communicate?  How do we represent our cause to the men and women and girls and boys who don’t know what we’re talking about?  How do you want to introduce that gambling addict to the source of your hope?  What is the best way to express to the battered women who live in our barrio that God is real and loves them and wants better for them?

I have these suggestions:

PAY ATTENTION TO HOW WE SOUND.

Sometimes the mockery we receive is not persecution; it’s that we have said stupid things that make us look ridiculous.  If you live inside a sub-culture of only Christians, remember other people don’t agree with our assumptions and don’t know our lingo.

HOW WE TALK ABOUT YOUR FAITH IS AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT WE SAY ABOUT IT.

People who don’t believe in Jesus aren’t idiots.  People who reject Christianity aren’t all out to get us.  When everyone reads everyone else’s posts and comments, making belligerent comments because you “know the truth” and someone else doesn’t (or doesn’t agree with your interpretation of it) communicates un-grace.

STOP SAYING STUPID STUFF  KEEP THE FOCUS ON JESUS’ MAIN THEMES

Jesus explained his critique, “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  You’re giving 10% of your kitchen spices but ignoring justice, mercy and faith.  If God is the father whom Jesus describes, and that’s the love I want people to experience, then how do I convey in my words and actions a God who broke down the dividing wall, the hostility between groups of people who despised each other?  God is reconciling people to himself and you are his message of reconciliation.  You are.

TELL PEOPLE THAT YOU ARE MESSED UP AND GOD LOVES YOU ANYWAY!  

You are.  He does.  That’s the best news you have.

They may laugh at you or judge you for your sins and flaws and weaknesses…but that won’t kill you and it may help them see God’s redemption in your life.

You may be the one who speaks for us.

Taken in The Rehearsal Factory, Toronto, ON @ October 11, 2007

Taken in The Rehearsal Factory, Toronto, ON @ October 11, 2007